top of page

Want to Pay Attention Better? Subtract.

Want to achieve more? Then do less. It’s not about being lazy. It’s about removing the unessential so you can focus on what truly matters.

There’s a myth out there that if you want to get ahead, you need to do more. Work more hours. Study harder. Earn more. Buy more.

Many follow this route. It’s a myth nonetheless.

If you’ve been working hard at something, whatever it is – or you find you’re struggling just to get through the day and get everything done, step back and ask yourself the

following question:

What can I subtract?

With few exceptions, the most successful are those who spend most of their time on just a few things and refuse to be sidetracked by the rest. Too many items on our to-do list, too many product choices, too many of anything, and you will quickly become paralyzed by overwhelm. If instead, you subtract items, you’ll find that everything flows much more smoothly.

Tim Ferriss, the author of The 4-Hour Workweek (now there’s a title that screams subtraction), used the subtraction method to dramatically increase sales for an early-stage start-up he worked with. The start-up wanted to up the rate of website visitors who became customers. At that point, the company lacked sufficient staff to completely redesign the site with all the bells and whistles conventionally used to entice potential customers.

Ferriss and the company’s leadership realized that adding new elements to the site took time and expertise, but removing site elements was easy. So they removed 70% of the clickable features on the homepage. The newly minimalist site immediately drew sales upward by over 20%.

Among marketing professionals, it’s a well-known secret that consumers become paradoxically less likely to buy as they are given more choices. In the famous Jam Study conducted 20 years ago, consumers at an upscale supermarket were presented with a display containing 24 varieties of jam to sample, and were given a $1 coupon for any variety of jam. A later display table contained only six varieties of jam, but with the same $1 coupon offer.

Although more shoppers visited the 24-variety table, when it came to pulling the trigger, they were only 10% as likely to buy as those who had visited the 6-variety table.

The study has been replicated with a variety of products, and with the same results. The phenomenon of "greater choice = less participation" extends to more important decisions than jam and toothpaste. Employees faced with myriad investment choices in their retirement plans actually are less likely to participate in the plans at all, and are less likely to actively manage their plans when they do participate.

To Get Ahead, Subtract

What’s true in the grocery aisle and in your retirement portfolio is true in virtually every aspect of your life. Just as you’re less likely to buy any variety of jam when confronted with too many, you’re less likely to get anything done on your to-do list if it contains too many items. It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking at jam, your retirement portfolio, your to-do list, or anything else. The ensuing paralysis is the same.

Even on a website like Amazon, where there is seemingly endless choice, you avoid paralysis by focusing on just a few choices. Most of us do not slog through 128 pages of product search results. We’re unlikely to go past the first page. In other words, even on Amazon, you’re usually looking at just a small number of products from which to choose. And on those rare occasions when you do look at page after page of search results, you’ll find that hours have gone by and you still haven’t bought anything.

So the next time you can’t figure out how to get something done, ask yourself: What can I subtract?

If your to-do list is a mile long, ask yourself what you could delete without any dire consequences. What could you postpone without anyone noticing? What items could be further simplified and take fewer steps to complete?

Engaging in this process has two benefits. First, you remove the unessential, leaving more time and energy for the essential. Second, you orient your mind toward looking for the essential, which will result in greater focus and even a feeling of empowerment (it’s far easier to feel empowered when figuring out how to complete the 5 items on your to-do list than when staring at a 37-item to-do list).

If you have a web site, then you can take a cue from Tim Ferriss and ask what you can subtract. What’s not essential? What’s actually getting in the way of visitors engaging with your site? If you’re planning a vacation, choose from among no more than three possible destinations. If instead, you contemplate 20 destinations, you’re likely to remain at home.

How many news sources do you read? Could you subtract a few and stay just as informed? Could you subtract the number of clothing choices you give yourself? You may be wondering how limiting your clothing choices could make a difference, but Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and many others among the super-successful have famously limited their wardrobes to the same trademark outfits day after day.

The super-successful stick with the same old outfits for the very same reason that you’re more likely to take action if presented with fewer jam choices or retirement options. As President Obama described, "You'll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I'm trying to pare down decisions. I don't want to make decisions about what I'm eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make."

In other words, subtract the unessential and you’ll make far more progress on what truly matters.



bottom of page